It's 9 P.M., and Craig Jones has just finished dumping 400 trash cans' worth of garbage into the Cincinnati Textile Building's basement compactor. The weighty refuse he carries each night hardly fazes Jones after five years on the job, but the grime he has to scrub off dirty wastebaskets still gets to him a little. "Wiping spit is a tough thing to get used to," he says. Jones, 27, earns $6.50 an hour without benefits, vacation time or sick days. His employer, Professional Maintenance, a cleaning contractor, usually schedules him for just four hours a night, five nights a week, so Jones' biweekly paycheck amounts to about $260, before taxes. The monthly rent for his spartan ground-level apartment in a once industrial part of town is $215, so there's little left after phone and utility bills and food. He hasn't bought a new piece of clothing in years.
Less than 300 miles away, Robyn Gray is in the midst of cleaning 48 kitchenettes, dusting 90 conference rooms and scrubbing 40 glass doors at One Mellon Center, a financial building in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa. Although her work is equally grueling, Gray, 44, is paid well, compared with Cincinnati, Ohio, janitors like Jones. For working a 9:30 p.m.--to--6 a.m., 40-hr.-a-week schedule, she earns $12.52 an hour and gets health insurance, three weeks' vacation and three personal days a year. Her $26,000 annual salary has helped Gray and her husband--who works for a company that erects cell-phone towers--buy their own home, send their two daughters to college and even go on the occasional family vacation--in May they took their first trip to Honolulu, Hawaii.
The major difference between Gray and Jones, say advocates for low-wage workers, is that she lives in a city where janitors are unionized and have collectively negotiated salaries considerably above the minimum wage, what they call a living wage. The living-wage movement has been building steam as outsourcing moves millions of relatively high-wage manufacturing jobs overseas, leaving behind less mobile, low-paying ones such as health-care aides, security guards and janitors. But it may have got a new burst of energy when the Change to Win Federation, made up of seven labor unions that split from the AFL-CIO last year to focus more directly on the lives of low-wage Americans, officially launched its first national initiative on April 24. Dubbed Make Work Pay!, the campaign aims to convince the public in 35 U.S. cities that all Americans who work hard deserve to earn a wage they can live on. "Someone working full time should be able to support themselves and their family," says Anna Burger, Change to Win's chairwoman.
The new campaign's supporters range from clergy like the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., former president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, to politicians like former North Carolina Senator and likely presidential contender John Edwards. "The perception exists that [a living wage] is not a politically popular subject, and that people in general aren't interested in it," Edwards says. "But my feelings now on the subject are stronger than they've ever been. You can't live on $6, $7 or $8 an hour and have anything to fall back on. Instead of getting ahead, which most families want to focus on, they're focused on survival."